River City Roots Festival

The Lil’ Smokies performing at last year’s River City Roots Festival.

MICHAEL GALLACHER, Missoulian

About a decade ago, Andy Dunnigan attended the Telluride Bluegrass Festival as a spectator.

He was a teenager who had just begun dabbling with guitar when he caught the festival's band competition, in which up-and-coming acts are given a chance to shine on the main stage.

Last weekend, he found himself up there with his progressive bluegrass band, the Lil' Smokies, vying for the title in front of several thousand people.

"It was a lot more nerve-wracking than I expected," he said. "I felt like I was an adolescent with my legs shaking."

But the Smokies beat out 11 other groups to claim the title, in what Dunnigan described as a personal "Lion King" moment.

"It was cool to come back to the festival 10 years later and win that," he said.

The victory comes with $750, strings for their instruments, and most importantly, an invitation to play a full set next year.

The bragging rights are invaluable as well. The win puts the Smokies in a circle of acts that went on to national careers. Past winners have included the Dixie Chicks, Greensky Bluegrass and last year's title-holder, Trout Steak Revival.

In fact, a member of that group told Smokies guitarist Pete Barrett to get ready for "the golden year of touring. That's what this does for you," Barrett said.

***

Like many breaks, it nearly didn't happen. The band missed the initial deadline for the competition, but applied anyway in case anyone dropped out.

Luckily one did, and the group had to start rehearsing on short notice for the showdown June 19 and 20, which has some strict rules.

It must have three to six members, and play music in categories such as bluegrass, old-time, Western swing or new acoustic/newgrass.

The Smokies fit that bill, comprising Dunnigan (vocals, dobro), Jesse Brown (vocals, violin), Barrett (vocals, guitar), Scott Parker (bass), Cam Wilson (mandolin) and Matt Cornette (banjo).

Beyond electric bass and steel and lap guitar, no electric instruments are welcome at the competition. Nor are drums or "standing percussion."

Even the microphone arrangement was traditional.

"It was an old-fashioned set-up where you all had to cram around one mic," Dunnigan said.

The judging criteria is broken down on the festival website.

"Taste, difficulty, authenticity/originality" count for 30 percent. Instrumental performance accounts for another 30 percent, as does vocal performance.

The final 10 percent is left to stage presence.

They also impose time limits on a genre built for instrumental workouts: Every song had to be three minutes or less.

"That was one of the biggest challenges," Dunnigan said.

They had to shed lyrics, instrumental parts, sections designed for improvisation and more, practicing with a timer and cutting till they were short enough. Barrett figures they only had one song under three before they started trimming.

In the first round, each band played three songs in three styles: a fast vocal, a slow vocal and an instrumental tune.

Once the Smokies made the final cut of four bands Friday, they had to perform a different set of three songs during the final round Saturday.

Afterward, the judges conferred and the finalists were called back to the stage.

They were picked off from last to first in a "reality TV show, 'Survivor'-type thing," Dunngian said, until only the Smokies were left standing.

"It was pretty damn nerve-wracking," Barrett said.

The judges didn't provide any scores or feedback, and bands are prohibited from talking to judges before or after. So the Smokies can only speculate on what gave them an edge.

Barrett guessed that perhaps they earned points for an all-business approach, where some focused on crowd interaction.

"All we know is we won, so we did something right," Barrett said.

***

The Smokies formed in October 2008 during an ad-hoc jam session at a Missoula house party heavy on musicians.

They continued playing together, working their way from keg parties to paying gigs, including some regular slots at the Top Hat Lounge under the Garr family. When the Garrs sold the bar, they passed on a "golden recommendation" to current owner Nick Checota, Barrett said.

"Nick has a helped us out a lot in that category," Barrett said. They've since played a number of sold-out headlining sets, and opened up for national touring acts there.

They've released two records: a self-titled studio album from 2013 and a live set recorded at the Top Hat on New Year's Eve that same year. Dunnigan said they've started planning another studio album.

In recent years, they've ramped up their touring, and many of the band members recently "took the plunge" and quit their day jobs to focus on music. Barrett said they started to travel around more once they realized they "could make money doing this. Not necessarily good money, but money."

Dunnigan estimates they play 150 gigs a year throughout the region, Colorado included.

"It is kind of the mecca for acoustic music and the type of music we're tailoring to," Dunnigan said.

The Telluride win will give them more traction in the region and around the country.

"It really sort of solidifies the band's place in the industry," Barrett said.

" 'We're serious, let's do this.' Which is really cool," he said.

Previously, they got gigs through word of mouth and old-fashioned footwork.

"Nationally, with this under our belt it's going to be easier to get into small- to medium-sized rooms in a lot of places we want to get into," he said.

"The bottom line is the music is really fun to play, and we have a really good time playing music with each other and seeing more and more stuff, more and more new places," he said. "And this is going to make that happen even more."

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